On March 14, approximately 6,000 miles from your desk, the first mission of the ExoMars program will launch from the grasslands of Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Think that’s far? Just think how the mission will travel: 48 million miles, all the way to its final destination—Mars.
This launch is a joint endeavor between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, whose ExoMars program will try to determine if there has ever been life on the Red Planet. They’re starting by sending two spacecraft: the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and a small module called Schiaparelli. The orbiter will catalog Mars’ atmospheric gases while keeping its robosensors perked up for gases like methane that could offer hints of life on the planet. Its little companion will set down on the planet itself, helping to figure out how future Martian missions can safely enter the atmosphere by crash-landing.
Now, don’t put on your tin foil hat quite yet. ExoMars is in search of alien life, but this is a multiyear mission. After hitching a ride away from Earth on a Proton rocket, the spacecraft duo will use solar wings to cruise for 7 months. The orbiter will enter Mars’ orbit in October just as Schiaparelli detaches and parachutes down to the target site. The ESA will throw on the TGO’s aerobrakes for a year to lower its altitude, and then the science can begin (if you’re counting, that’ll be at the end of 2017).
Even then, there’s no telling what the pair will find. Luckily, Schiaparelli and the orbiter won’t be alone in their quest for life on Mars: Part two of the ExoMars programme will hurl a rover and surface platform into space to join them in 2018. (Sadly, Schiaparelli will have run out of batteries by then.)
Don McCoy, the ExoMars project manager, has big dreams for the programme, which he hopes “will help the international community bring a piece of Mars back to Earth.” He also speculates that both missions will help address the question of life on Mars.
So, what’s an armchair astronaut to do, sitting thousands of miles away from Baikonur? Tune in to the ESA’s live stream of the launch, which will kick off at 3:30am EST on Monday. It’s worth the early wake-up: Although there have been 43 attempted missions to Mars, none have come from the ESA.
No pressure, TGO and Schiaparelli.